A UW-Madison research center that has used the university’s largest-ever federal grant to develop ethanol technology over the past decade will shift its focus to other alternative fuels after winning another major award from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center will use the five-year grant to learn more about how to sustainably produce energy from switchgrass, poplar trees, sorghum and other dedicated bioenergy crops — those that, unlike ethanol, are not also used for food, director Tim Donohue said Monday.
The center received $267 million over 10 years from the Department of Energy for its ethanol research, which Donohue said will wind down over the next six to 18 months.
How much money the center will receive with its latest grant, which Energy Department officials announced Monday, will depend on what happens to the agency’s funding in the federal budget.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank warned last month that spending cuts in the Trump administration’s budget proposal threatened funding for several research initiatives at the university, including the bioenergy center.
Ethanol has been embraced by the energy industry over the years, Donohue said, and putting greater emphasis on research to develop other biofuels fulfills the center’s mission “to generate next-generation technologies.”
Donohue said the Department of Energy encouraged the shift, pushing researchers to focus on potential fuels that would not be grown on land that is now used for agriculture, or compete with other uses for crops such as corn — what he described as a “food-vs.-fuel” issue.
The other biofuels could also have greater potential than ethanol when it comes to replacing fossil fuels across different transportation industries, said Donohue, a professor of bacteriology.
Ethanol has been developed as a fuel for car engines, he said, but would not work in airplanes or the diesel engines that power large ships.
“If we are going to use biomass to make fuels, you would want to make fuels that can burn in many different types of engines,” Donohue said. “If all we work on is ethanol ... it only impacts a certain fraction of the market.”
The center is led by researchers at UW-Madison who partner with peers at Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University, Texas A&M and the University of British Columbia. It employs more than 400 researchers, students and staff members. Most of its work is housed at the Wisconsin Energy Institute building on University Avenue.
Researchers will work to develop new fuels from bioenergy crops and to extract chemicals from them that can also be sold, he said. That way, refineries for those crops could function much like traditional ones, which turn crude oil into both fuel and the chemical precursors for products such as nylon.
Doing so could boost rural economies by creating jobs in agriculture and at new refineries, Donohue said.
“If we’re successful, we will create value across the entire chain here,” he said.